It’s fascinating to think about how dumb we are in this state when it comes to protecting the unique and amazing natural environment we’ve been given.
In our neck of the woods perhaps the most amazing environmental wonder is the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, and that’s saying a lot considering the Gulf of Mexico is right here as well.
Somehow, despite decades of leadership that has seldom paid a tremendous amount of attention to environmental concerns, “America’s Amazon,” as it’s been dubbed, remains a natural wonder on par with almost anything God put together on the North American continent.
Of course there are always issues of encroachment by development, etc. to contend with, but for decades now a much bigger threat has been growing like a tumor. For 50 years now, Alabama Power has been dumping coal ash into a pond right alongside the Mobile River — enough coal ash that it would now fill more than 6,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Enough coal ash to likely destroy or at least permanently maim our beautiful delta.
Alabama’s Barry power plant continues chugging away, dumping more coal ash into this nearly 600-acre pond, adding to the 21 million tons already there. That is until the end of this year, when they intend to “cap and close” the pond, essentially burying all that coal ash and leaving it for the rest of time to do what it will.
Maybe that gives some of you a warm feeling, knowing a public utility like Alabama Power is looking out for our best interests, but there are a few things to consider. First of all, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management just fined Alabama Power, along with PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, a combined $1.5 million for violations of the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act at the Barry plant and five others around the state. So maybe that warm-and-fuzzy feeling is just the Mexican food you had for lunch.
This massive wad of coal is kept out of the water system by a 21-foot-tall dam of dirt and clay, two of the building materials most often recommended for keeping contaminants out of nearby rivers. Did I say contaminants? Let’s just say this pond contains the Flintstone Vitamins recommended daily allowance of things you don’t want in your waterways or your fish — calcium, strontium, TDS, barium, selenium, aluminum, iron, manganese, cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead, vanadium, lead, sulfate and sulfur.
The Environmental Protection Agency ordered the closing and cleanup of many of these types of coal ash ponds in the wake of a coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee a decade ago that cost more than $1.2 billion to clean up. Some power companies voluntarily decided the best course of action was to dig out their ponds and move the ash to lined landfills so all those delicious ingredients wouldn’t eventually seep into the ground water. But not Alabama Power. They feel like it’s best just to drain the swamp and dry out the contaminants, then cover it all up.
I think we’ve all seen this movie before.
Keeping in mind the Kingston spill site was 80 acres and Barry’s is almost 600 acres, it’s pretty easy to get at least a ballpark idea of what kind of cleanup cost we might be dealing with should that dirt and clay ever give way. The environmental damage is impossible to estimate. As an area prone to hurricanes and what some might consider pretty amazing rain events, how can anyone think there’s no chance for even this capped off pond to eventually be washed out?
If it happens, millions of tons of coal ash is suddenly flowing into the Mobile River, heading into the bay and out into the Gulf. I suppose Alabama Power could take out some ads saying “Whoops!”
But even if that never happens, it’s almost certain these elements will simply leach into our waterways over time. Of course then we can play the time-honored game of “Who’s Cadmium is This?” It’s one lots of companies and big utilities love.
Remember all the stank mercaptan Mobile Gas released in the Eight Mile community? That mess has been going on for 10 years and Mobile Gas at first denied like hell the ingredient that makes natural gas smell like rotten eggs had anything to do with them. Like maybe it was just some mercaptan homebrewer who was doing it.
I feel certain if all the fish in the Delta start growing a third eye, or showing up with massive amounts of aluminum or lead in their systems, that Alabama Power isn’t going to jump up and say, “OK, it’s us! Sorry.” Essentially right now they are already making the decision that is riskiest for the rest of us and cheapest for them, so you have a pretty strong idea of what they’ll do when this becomes an issue down the line.
Maybe someone at Alabama Power will feel I’m being unfair because so far there haven’t really been any “major” problems with the Barry Ash Pond, but let’s be perfectly honest, the location of that pond has been an issue for decades and everyone has known it. They’ve dumped about six million tons more in over the past couple of years knowing it was an issue. Failures at other such ponds around the country have been devastating, so it isn’t like a failure scenario is science fiction.
Logically it just seems far more likely if all that ash is left “capped off” beside the Mobile River, sooner or later either the river or a hurricane is going to “uncap” it. So why, Alabama Power, would you want to play that kind of game of coal ash chicken?
It might not be so bothersome to the rest of us if when that mess is eventually released it flows into the living rooms of the CEO and other hotshots running the Southern Company in Atlanta. After all, that’s who runs Alabama Power and ultimately makes the decision as to how best alleviate this threat.
Unfortunately for us though, nobody’s Atlanta mansion is going to be ruined when the levee breaks. It’s going to be America’s Amazon, our delta and potentially our way of life.
So stop screwing around Alabama Power. Dig all that ash out and put it somewhere safe. Do the right thing. After 50 years, everyone is watching.